One reason the EU doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize

Unlike some, I think the EU winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a good thing. Europe was the most warlike place on earth for millennia. I have trouble thinking of somewhere more incessantly violent than pre-1945 Europe.

The Americas, Africa and Australia were both too sparsely populated for properly sustained warfare of the European variety. They also didn’t have the technology to produce viable killing machines. South Asia and East Asia, e.g. the Muhgals, Han etc. settled into imperial systems in which a hegemon acted arbitrarily violently, but which was never as dangerous as Europe”s state of war.

Things got a bit peaceful from 1815-1914, but once Europe had run out of non-Europeans to kill they went back for a hundred-year-giant-slaughter-anniversary bash which they ran, with intermission, from for about the next 30 years.

But, suddenly, since 1945, we haven’t really killed each other that much – apart from the Russians, but we’ve always thought they were a bit odd. In my view somebody needed an award, the EU is good enough. Plus, it has at least been pretending that maintaining the peace is what it was trying to do.

However, a couple of days before EU was awarded the prize, they did something which made the world a marginally more warlike place. Europe killed the BAE/EADS merger. BAE is synonymous with the British military-industrial complex, EADS is the same for continental Europe. A merger would have created one of the largest producers of military hardware in the world.

By killing the deal Europe has managed to prevent the management of BAE and EADS from rushing headlong into a pointless merger and stopped them from destroying millions of pounds worth of weaponised wealth.

Mergers have a terrible history. Rather than enabling synergies and economies of scale or scope, mergers often leave everybody worse off than if the firms had remained separate. The juries out on why mergers so often go wrong; it could be managerial hubris; it could be the winner’s curse wherein the winner is the person who bids ever so slightly too high; it could be something more Hayekian, in that people underestimate the complexity of the larger company.

In any case, I thought it was likely a BAE/EADS merger was a value destroying proposition. Both BAE and EADS are tightly linked to their sponsor states. A merged company would have had to answer to the British, the French and the Germans. Can you imagine them getting anything done if you had those three bosses? It would be a recipe for disaster, but disaster in the “killing things” supply chain is a net plus for the world, so I thought it odd to see these two stories come out at about the same time.

Oh, and why would two medium firms merge into a large one if it is such a bad idea? Well, its a bad idea for the owners, but for the management

Nota Banquero sounds a lot like Notenbanker

I’m very sympathetic to the idea that the peripheral Eurozone countries should cut loose and devalue their new currencies to regain competitiveness and aid recovery. Krugman here half-recommends a quick default and devalue solution for countries running a primary surplus (that is, only borrowing money to cover the interest payments of previous loans).

The basic logic is one which I adhere to. The European Central bank has caused a debt problem to be seriously exacerbated by an aggregate demand problem, a new national central bank in control of its own currency (Esnewdo etc.) could boost demand through an adequate devaluation.

But there is no guarantee that such a devaluation would be adequate, or that a new central bank would act aggressively enough. To a degree the newly empowered Central Bank would have no choice, markets would force it to devalue, but much commentary assumes they would also force the bank into the accommodative policy, this need not be so. Many countries have voluntarily maintained too tight monetary policy for too long.

The cult of the credible central banker would stay the hand of any newly independent central bank. The logical and sensible point that a central bank must not behave recklessly or unpredictably has been become a dogma. Modern central bankers have become overly concerned that any departures from fighting inflation could lead easily to inflation expectations becoming “unanchored“, potentially leading to hyperinflation.

The political pressure to boost demand for a periphery Central Bank with its own currency would be intense. But this would only intensify the professional and institutional pressure on Central Bankers to resist these calls to retain their “credibility”; Interest rates may remain too high, or the bank may signal its hawkishness at any sign of demand picking up.

Devaluation without a change in the culture and prescriptions of central banking could lead to the worst of all worlds for the peripheral countries of Europe. Their economy could remain depressed and uncompetitive due to central bank stubborness but their external burden would have increased because their national, or at least, private debts remain denominated in much more expensive Euros.

Many countries have the option of following the Swiss and Swedish in devaluing but so far the US, UK and Japan have all refused. Britain today ignores opportunities to increase demand using monetary stimulus just as we suffered all through the 1920s because we chose to overvalue our currency. I fear much of southern Europe could find itself in the same situation.

In addition to this cult of the central banker, it may be that Steve Randy Waldman is correct and that depression is a choice. He argues that because of demographic pressures interest rates are naturally quite low, and because there are lots of old people who live off fixed income there are institutional problems to getting enough stimulus because they fear their income will be inflated away.

The low interest rates make normal monetary policy hard and the political constituency make unconventional policy too difficult to employ. Hence nations, or currency zones, “choose” depression. Demographic pressures in Southern Europe are similar to those in Japan and the elderly are much more powerful in Italy than in the UK or the US where policy also remains too tight.

The combination of political constituencies who are threatened or think they are threatened by looser monetary policy and a cult which treats loose monetary policy as a dangerous barbiturate may mean that even an independent currency may not be enough to pull the periphery of Europe out of its doldrums. The institutional constraints which have helped create the current Eurozone crisis will outlive the euro and must be considered in any rescue plan.

Told you so

Still screwed.

European stocks were in the black but off earlier highs Tuesday, as investors weighed strong German growth figures against the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro… [M]arket participants pointed to the fact that Tuesday’s GDP releases merely highlight the growing disparity between Germany’s strong performance and the weakness seen in Southern European members. Italy’s economy contracted by 0.8% in the first quarter, while Spain’s economy shrank 0.3% and Portugal remained in recession. In Greece, GDP contracted by an annual rate of 6.2% in the first quarter.

We have a balance of payments crisis; the continuance of this crisis is not good news, even if Germany keeps the Eurozone from entering a “technical recession.” The periphery is still exporting too little and importing too much, Germany vice versa.

Unless the periphery of the Eurozone is given somewhere to export to they will not recover. I’m not asking for any sacrifice from the Germans aside from the psychic cost of no longer being able to tell yourself how virtuous you are. I’m asking for the Germans to consume more! They should have more stuff themselves instead of selling it to Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks etc. for bits of paper which might end up being worthless.

Have your cake and eat it Germans, better yet, eat a cake made by some Italians and  Spaniards and Portuguese and Greeks and Frenchmen! You’ve earned it.

We’re saved (or not)

 From the Wall Street Journal:

LONDON (Dow Jones)–European stocks are expected to open slightly higher Tuesday, in a reversal from earlier opening calls, after German gross domestic product figures came in significantly better than expected.

 Good news…or is it?

Amid all the doom and gloom, strong German GDP figures just out may give investors something to cheer about Tuesday. Data show Germany’s economy, the largest in Europe, grew much more than expected in the first quarter, driven by a surge in net exports.

It looks like Europe is getting further away from a necessary rebalancing in which Germany consumes more. Without Germany consuming more and exporting less/importing more there is almost no conceivable way for the Eurozone to survive. There are still no silver linings in Europe.

Migration as Technology

I was a little confused by this Robin Hanson post. He cites with approval the fact that since 1970 40% of all the extra consumption in the world has occurred in the United States. Below are the top 30 gainers in terms of tens of billions of dollars a year.

United States 583, Japan 183, China 103, United Kingdom 73, Germany 63, France 53, India 47, Brazil 47, Italy 39, Canada 37, Mexico 37, Spain 28, Indonesia 14, Netherlands 11, Greece 9, South Africa 8, Thailand 8, Switzerland 8, Belgium 8, Austria 7, Colombia 7, Sweden 7, Philippines 7, Norway 7, Malaysia 7, Portugal 6, Chile 6, Finland 5, Ireland 5, Denmark 4. (source)

Robin argues that this is argument against Tyler’s notion of a slow down in technological innovation. But the population of the US is 48% bigger in 2010 (310,000,000) than in 1970 (209,000,000). At first I couldn’t see why this would counts as evidence against some notion of a slow down in intensive growth. The US got more from more which is great for all those people involved, but it is not evidence we can get more from less, is it?

Well, in a way it is, although you have to denationalise your perspective. The US does have an overwhelming lead in one “technology”; that of receiving and assimilating migrants. The factors behind this are geographical, historical and cultural, but it still as a really important technology in terms of increasing “our” productive and consumptive capacity.

The productivity of millions of people has been hugely increased simply by them moving across a border. Allowing more migration is an innovation that can make many people better off by improving their productivity. But it is a technology which cannot be excercised by a single firm, it is better thought of as a society-wide innovation akin to germ theory or corporation law.